By Josephine O’Grady

In New Jersey, one in five adults has a disability (CDC, 2022a). New Jersey residents with disabilities have higher rates of depression, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease than residents without a disability. The specific vulnerabilities relating to mental health among New Jersey residents mirror national mental health disparities. Across the U.S., adults with disabilities report frequent mental health distress nearly five times as much as adults without disabilities (CDC, 2022b). Additionally, people with disabilities have less access to healthcare and are less physically active (Swenor, 2021).

Outdoor recreation can improve physical and mental health in both children and adults. Further, nature-based experiences facilitate critical thinking, development, and other cognitive skills. For people with disabilities, outdoor recreational activities and similar outdoor experiences have particularly positively affected feelings of well-being. Several studies indicate that outdoor experiences for people with disabilities lead to increased confidence and skills, enhanced relationships, and elevated quality of life (Dorsh, 2016; Armstrong et. al, 2023; Zachor et. al, 2017).

However, people with disabilities face structural–and often “invisible”–barriers to outdoor recreational experiences.

  • For people with physical disabilities, accessibility issues arise such as parking, the surface and terrain of walking trails, and whether information on accessibility can easily be found in advance of the person’s visit on the reserve/park website of the outdoor space.
  • Further, for people with developmental, intellectual, or communication disabilities, barriers arise primarily related to the extent of outreach. Research has shown that to pursue new experiences, people with developmental/communication disabilities often rely on extensive support systems from their families, friends, or caregivers (Stigsdotter et. al, 2019; Groulx et. al, 2022). Consequently, community engagement and outreach of outdoor programs and experiences must target these support systems.
  • For people who are deaf, hard of hearing (HoH), or otherwise hearing impaired, research has shown that they experience language barriers to partaking in outdoor activities from the time they are children. Until a recent project by the Massachusetts Waquoit Bay Research Reserve, ASL signs were not widely circulated for many coastal or ecological terms, such as sea-level rise, estuary, and watershed. This has excluded people in the deaf/HoH community from engaging in outdoor experiences as children and pursuing ecological and STEM fields as adults (Office of Coastal Zone Management, 2023).

As a result of these barriers, the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group, with funding from the New Jersey State Policy Lab, is investigating state policies in the U.S. that increase outdoor recreation accessibility, focusing on innovative programs and practices that promote outdoor communities inclusive to people with disabilities. Currently, based on the programs and policies that have been explored in various states, the research team offers several important insights.

Organized versus passive access:

Across the states surveyed in our literature review, state recreation programs fall into two categories: “organized” or “passive” outdoor recreational access. For example, in California, its state Coastal Conservancy agency manages the Explore the Coast Grant program, which distributes funds to community-based organizations in the Bay Area that increase opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in organized outdoor sports, such as kayaking day trips (California State Coastal Conservancy, n.d.). Meanwhile, other states, such as Connecticut, Virginia, and Minnesota, focus state funding on improving recreational trail access, addressing issues such as accessible parking and facilities, which emphasize outdoor activities that can be enjoyed by individuals. Ideally, best practices for states would feature a balance of organized and passive access, which address a variety of needs and uses of outdoor experiences for people with disabilities.

Reliance on private and nonprofit partnerships:

Exceptional state policies and practices rely on two primary features: grant programs that encourage innovative projects, and the presence of nonprofit and private partners. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation manages the state’s Universal Access Program, a program composed of two parts. First, the department works to update outdoor sites, equipment, and facilities to make them more accessible and adaptive for people of different needs. Second, the department uses partnerships with nonprofit and private organizations to offer adaptive recreational programming on state parks, pools, and rinks (Massachusetts Department of Conservation, n.d.). Other examples include California (Explore the Coast, Coastal Stories, and Lower Cost Coastal Accommodations Programs), Oregon (Office of Outdoor Recreation), and Washington, (Conservation Corps Program, Outdoor Education and Recreational Grant Program, and the Water Trail Recreational Program), and Minnesota (Natural and Scenic Area Grant Program). In each of these examples, the development or enhancement of outdoor recreational programs and facilities is supported through grant programs, in which community-based public and private organizations specializing in different aspects of outdoor recreation compete for funding to contribute to outdoor recreation maintenance in the state. Through the format of community-based grant programs, the process of outdoor recreation planning and policymaking becomes both more inclusive and creative.

Use of data on outdoor recreational use trends to inform projects:

Key projects focused on in our ongoing research summary take advantage of data to inform and evaluate outdoor recreational projects. For example, in its Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shares some results from the Minnesota Outdoor Recreational Use Survey, which was conducted in 2017 to better understand outdoor recreational use trends and current barriers experienced by Minnesota residents. From there, the Minnesota DNR was able to use these results to establish its five-year goals, which revolved around better considering the needs of people with disabilities and lower socioeconomic status (Minnesota DNR, 2020). Similarly, the Virginia DNR created the ConservationVision Nature-based Recreational Access Model, a geospatial planning tool with an accompanying dataset that shows how much land is available in the state for public outdoor recreational purposes, based on whether the land satisfies specific land and water-based metrics. This tool allows the DNR to plan for future recreational projects, quantify existing projects, and consider ways to preserve natural resources, given the criteria needed to be considered as optimal recreational land space (Virginia DNR, 2021).

Policies and programs that transcend multiple categories of barriers:

There are select key states that stand out as examples of states that address inclusivity and accessibility on multiple levels. For example, the California Coastal Conservancy funds projects that address outdoor recreational barriers faced by multiple marginalized groups. These are addressed through programs such as the Lower Cost Coastal Accommodations Program, the Coastal Stories Grant Program, and certain projects in the Explore the Coast Program, including the Brown Girls Surfing Camp, and the Outdoor Outreach Coastal Adventure Program. Between these projects, California addresses accessibility issues for people of color, tribal groups, immigrant communities, people of low socioeconomic status, and disadvantaged youth.

In another example, certain states, including Virginia, Ohio, and Alabama, have taken advantage of the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, a federally funded grant to improve or create outdoor recreational facilities for economically disadvantaged groups in the state’s urban centers (U.S. National Park Service, n.d.). Through these projects, a variety of traditionally excluded groups are reached, which better positions states to address disability outdoor recreational barriers. People with disabilities transcend multiple categories of what it means to be an underserved community, so representing these groups through outdoor recreational policy and planning– particularly concerning socioeconomic disadvantages– is essential to supporting people with disabilities in a variety of living circumstances.

Additional Topics:

The population of New Jersey adults with a disability is 21%, in which the two biggest categories of disability among this population are mobility issues and cognitive disabilities (CDC, 2022a). As a result, our ongoing literature review will continue to explore state policies on disability outdoor recreational access, with an eye on how these issues impact New Jersey. Additionally, we will compare policies in a variety of states to outline how insights regarding best practices can specifically benefit New Jersey. To support increased discussion and collaboration around strategies to promote healthy communities through inclusive outdoor recreation, the final report by our research team will be available this summer, as well as an accompanying blog synthesizing our final findings.

Josephine O’Grady is a Research Assistant for the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group and a graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree at the Edward J. Bloustein School at Rutgers University. Josephine also participated in the New Jersey State Policy Lab summer 2022 internship program.


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Zachor, D. A., Vardi, S., Baron-Eitan, S., Brodai-Meir, I., Ginossar, N., & Ben-Itzchak, E. (2017). The effectiveness of an outdoor adventure programme for young children with autism spectrum disorder: A controlled study. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 59(5), 550–556.